Museums and an Extroverted Sense of Place

Seminar Migrants-Immigrants-Museums

Open Lecture by Christopher Whitehead

Migration and migrants have got extensive attention in the recent decades. Economic, social and cultural impact of mobility on individuals and groups has been global, effectively challenging ideas, places, communities and knowledge production. The influence of mobility on the museum work will be discussed on the seminar with three invited speakers from Newcastle University and the editors of the book “Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe: Peoples, Places and Identities” (Routledge, 2015) – Rhiannon Masson, Christopher Whitehead and Susannah Eckersley. The seminar is organized by Mobilities and Transnational Iceland (project of excellence supported by Rannís) in cooperation with National Museum of Iceland.


Museums and an Extroverted Sense of Place

Professor Christopher Whitehead, Newcastle University

In 1991 the late Doreen Massey characterized a progressive sense of place, as “not self-closing and defensive, but outward-looking”. Places, in this view, are ever-ongoing social processes rather than fixed entities that require protection from external forces. They are full of mixtures and hybrid cultural forms, and are active points within global flows. In recent decades (culminating, in the, UK, in the 2016 Brexit Referendum), mainstream resentment towards migrants and refugees, or people perceived as such, has been an important element of political discourse and popular disaffection. This has involved a binary opposition between global mobilities and the local places. The global forces that produced the Refugee Crisis are disowned at the local level, where many fear cultural encroachment, change, difference and otherness. This essay brings the theoretical and civil power of Massey’s articulation of an ‘extroverted’ sense of place to bear upon this issue in the context of the social agency of museums. Displays in museums can present long processual views of place, to resist characterizations of once-pure places adulterated by difference; they can complicate the relations between local and global; they can denaturalize the local and show how human and cultural mobilities and mixing have always made place. Bringing together some Masseyan perspectives with new visitor studies undertaken for the EU-funded CoHERE project (‘Critical Heritages: performing and representing identities in Europe’), I explore possibilities for museums that engage with place to act in pursuit of egalitarian civility.